Xi'an, China

Liang Yuanwei, 2015 No. 16, 2015, oil on linen, 55 1/4 × 47 1/4".

Liang Yuanwei, 2015 No. 16, 2015, oil on linen, 55 1/4 × 47 1/4".

Liang Yuanwei

OCAT Xi’an Contemporary Art Center

Liang Yuanwei, 2015 No. 16, 2015, oil on linen, 55 1/4 × 47 1/4".

At first, it is difficult to see what is different about Liang Yuanwei’s new oil paintings. In the series titled “Oval,” 2014–15, the artist employs her signature method, meticulously interpreting patterns lifted from found textiles. Liang doesn’t produce preliminary sketches or drafts; rather, she allows the design to materialize in the accumulation of palpable, impressionistic brushstrokes. But unlike her previous fabric-inspired paintings, these sixteen canvases can be read as a single, multifaceted work.

Titled in sequence from Oval 1 to Oval 16, the works evince eight months of the artist’s labor and document her development of a painterly lexicon. They share a motif—sprays of tea roses and wintersweet—but the appropriated patterns are incidental, merely vehicles for her experiments with paint. These works reward many kinds of viewing. From afar, the patterns cohere, but when seen up close, the images break down to reveal that each petal or leaf is a single brushstroke, a record of the artist’s movement in space and time. Liang’s pictorial obfuscation is evident only when closely observed, but an intimate encounter also reveals the range of her mark-making, which is in some passages quick and confident, and in others hesitant and patient.

“Oval” represents the artist’s departure from purely aesthetic concerns as she shifts her focus to painterly processes and materials. A full day of labor is required to complete only a small portion of each canvas. Once begun, work cannot be abandoned, or the consistency of her material changes and cannot be manipulated to achieve the desired effect. This series clearly lays out the artist’s technical experimentation: Her approach to any given canvas is consistent, and each features a different interplay of color, form, and texture. The viewer is invited to witness the maturation of the artist’s hand. By imposing conceptual limitations on her execution of each work, she ultimately develops a novel artistic vocabulary that is as theory-based and experimental as it is rooted in traditional methods of painting.

Liang strives toward flatness and precision with each “brush landing” (luobi). Unlike the canvases she produced from 2005 to 2014, for which she used an oil brush to carve floral motifs from heavy impasto surfaces, these works feature dramatically reduced material loads. The earliest paintings on view at OCAT, titled Oval 1 and Oval 2, are somewhat awkward, their faces thickly painted. But as one progresses through the series, the depicted patterns begin to cohere with increasingly confident strokes, the paint becomes more thinly applied, and the weave of the canvas is revealed. Nevertheless, Liang creates depth in innovative ways. She gradually dissolved the vertical gradient that characteristically hovers behind the floral patterns in earlier works and adopted instead a uniform patina-like ground. As she has developed her vocabulary, Liang has rediscovered the line (xian) of ancient Chinese figure painting, which is excellently demonstrated in the seventh-century Tang dynasty tomb murals that are housed in the Shaanxi History Museum. The artist visited these frescoes on multiple occasions in preparation for this show, and it seems they affected her painterly subconscious. The brushwork and surfaces of Oval 15 and Oval 16 distinctly resonate with the murals, and in that sense these final two canvases bring closure to the series. The downward pressure Liang applied with each stroke pushed the oil paint evenly to the brushes’ outer edges but left a scant layer of paint in the middle, resulting in a line drawing in relief. The effect is elusive.

Lee Ambrozy